The New Victoria (The Odeon)

Four or five minutes’ walk southwards from Hill Place to where St. Patrick’ s Square gives way to Clerk Street, the white-ceramic façade of the “Vic”, as it was locally known, still stands pretty much as it was when the Vic (these many years the Odeon) opened in 1930. 

The New Victoria has been described and chronicled by better writers than myself, and I in fact never saw the inside of the place until 1936, the year before I passed my “qually” (eleven-plus to later ages). After all, I’d just turned eleven then, and its cheapest seat was, I think, a shilling anyway – rather more than a ten or eleven year-old could splash out on pictures then. I do remember, though, shortly after starting at Drummondy, the buzz created by the Edinburgh premiere at the Vic of the original “Frankenstein”, and seeing the two huge cutouts I’m sure they were about three-times-life – of the Monster, Boris Karloff, glowering at .passersby from the canopy. 

Round about 1936, though, Saturday morning matinees for Schools, consisting of educational and interest films with cartoons and short features, were started at the Vic. Tickets for these, price twopence (!) were sold round the schools, and you did get a good show for your tuppence , (1/2p today). Doors opened at about ten, and the show finished at about twelve-thirty or it might be twelve-forty-five. Houses were always big – often packed.

This was my first experience of a big super-cinema, and I was much impressed by the scale, the grandeur and above all the quiet dignity and graciousness of the Vic as it was then and was to be for many years to come. I’ve since visited bigger cinemas, whose size, scale and “atmospheric” decor may well have outshone the Vic, but few of them matched it in the qualities I’ve described, which never failed to impress me on subsequent visits, even years later. 

The outer foyer – bigger than a good many in Edinburgh at least – the great fan-shaped inner foyer with its carpets, comfortable seating and doors to the stalls and the boxes which ran round the rear of the auditorium under the circle, the huge proscenium with its orders of columns and vast spreading pediment, accentuating the width of the stage and directing all eyes to the screen (masked until the start by the huge “house-tabs” and the inner “runners”), the mood lighting introducing the various items, and, lastly, the auditorium lighting fading and coming up slowly and majestically on the “house dimmer” – all this was new to me and made a great impression. The blasé air shown to it all by some or my mates was, I’m convinced, an act or, as Cleg Kelly would have put it, “a big lee!” 

The films were always preceded: by “community singing” (hideous term) accompanied by the mighty Wurlitzer – another surprise, incidentally; it was the first cinema organ I’d heard, apart from Reginald Foort and Sandy McPherson on the neebor’s wireless.

This organ had it seemed, been shipped across for the Embassy down in Pilton, but had for some reason ended up at the Vic – from a cinema in ** Baltimore, of all places. *The Vic, incidentally, was the only Edinburgh cinema to have a Wurlitzer; apart from the Compton at the Regent and the Hilsdon at the Playhouse, all the others – Rutland (Gaumont), Capitol, New, Astoria, etc., – were built by an Edinburgh company, Ingram of Gorgie, now long gone.

I wasn’t impressed by my first hearing of the Wurlitzer, although it was later made weel-kent by Richard Telfer. For one thing, the man at the console was nowhere in Dick Teller’s class; he stuck to the well-worn and wearying combination of tibia, vox humana (!) and main tremulant, and my ear soon tired of it.

Worse still, he and his mate on stage seemed to imagine that the only tunes we knew or liked were “John Peel”, ‘‘Annie . Laurie”, “John Brown’s Body” or else mawkish items out of one or other of the Clarendon school song books. Well, can you imagine a packed house of kids on a Saturday morning wanting to sing anything like “Oh, Dainty Shepherdess” – or worse yet, “Hob-y-deri-dando”? ,:

Eh, weel, we bore patiently with them until the ploy was dune wi’, and the show began. Most of the films were, as I’d said, interest features, documentary and educational, and might cover anything from jungle exploration or deepsea treasure hunting to wild life and big-game observation. One, I recall, entitled “Tiger, tiger”, was a real thriller – the camera had had to get very close; no long-range lenses. Sports, visits to factories, trips on trawlers or drifters or lighthouse service ships made up interesting programmes.

Oddly enough, some of the films were German with English dubbing. Olympic games, ski-jumping, a visit to Hohner’s works to see accordions being made, Bavarian or perhaps Rhineland wine festivals with dancers in peasant attire performing to oompah bands were among these offerings.

Looking back now, it might seem that Dr. Goebbels was possibly making great efforts to foster the impression that Adolf was in his chancellery and all was right with Germany. Certainly the Hohner film, with its kindly father taking the plates off his small son’s harmonica to explain its working, and . playing the accordion himself, laid some emphasis on the family angle – obviously the line to take in Britain then. The shots of the local yokels. Playing their harmonicas along the village lane and waving to the driver of the Flying Hamburger as it flashed past them on the nearby railway, exploited the peaceful-pastoral theme. No columns of troops, streaming over the Rhine bridges, and the factories’ all making mouth-organs. 

The cartoons, usually rounded off the shows and sent us, home happy. I recall one black-and-white Mickey Mouse – “Steamboat Mickey”, which I believe had been Disney’s first venture into sound some years previously. It was musical, and Mickey improvised instruments from various items of the ship’s gear. 

On the whole, the programmes were good, and good value too. The only bad feature I remember, one Saturday in late 1937, was an utterly appalling film of Anna Sewell’s “Black Beauty” – American, of course. Most of my classmates and very likely a good many of our age group (last year in primary) knew the book well – we’d had to write essays on it in our class – and the first thing that roused our fury was the complete Americanisation of the story.

None of Anna Sewell’s characters could be recognised in it; the locale was a Southern plantation house, there some very sloppily-played love-scenes, the social-documentary side of the novel was almost entirely missed. I could go quite a while, but suffice to say that the authoress; must have spun in her grave like a gyro-compass. Certainly the whole thing elicited the nearest to rowdy behaviour I’d seen then or since at the Vic. 

That, however, was the only boob on the part of the presenters of the programmes, and they didn’t repeat it. 

The lesser houses of the district. though, were still much cheaper for ordinary week-my-week picturegoing, and my next visit to the Vic, barring one from Jimmy’s – James Clark Technical and Commercial School to you wasn’t until late 1940, when I was working as a poster-writer (to be more accurate, a “filler-in”). The film was “The Great Dictator”. 

Our shop had done front-of-house billing advertising all-day showings of this Chaplin comeback, and if I wasn’t exactly “blazing in the lustre of unaccustomed pocket-money”, I could at least sometimes keep up with my peers. 

The other day I was chatting with an old friend who’d been a member of the G.B. Kiddies’ Club. This had opened at the Vic in 1941, when she was at Preston Street primary, and she recalled that if your birthday – easily checked on your membership card – fell on a Saturday when you attended, not only were you admitted free, but you got a seat in one of the private boxes. A nice touch, which probably helped a lot of kids to stretch their weekly allowance a bit; admission was sixpence, by this time. 

Gladys recalled ruefully, though, that it didn’t help, her, as her birthday fell on New Year’s Day. 

The odd visit during my teens – a daft anachronistic comedy entitled “The Boys from Syracuse”, based on Shakespeare’s “Comedy of Errors” and starring Martha Rae, Allan Jones, Joe Penner and a suitable daft cast, comes back to mind, and one of the good wartime films, “The young Mr. Pitt” also stirs memories, as does “Kind Hearts and Coronets”– a tour-de-force, for Alec Guinness, which I saw when I’d come home from India. 

The Vic’s indefinable aura, no less than the design, furnishing, etc., which made my first visit such an experience, has outlasted for me the grandeur of bigger cinemas visited in various places during my service years and post-war holidays. The Vic, even in its latter years as one cinema, when an unaccountably stupid change of decor shattered the illusion of blue Mediterranean evening, over the great amphitheatre, could still charm and command.

Nobody in my recollection – even the most depraved keely (if any such ever went there) – tried anything on at the Vic. Not that they’d have been squashed pretty quickly, (which they certainly would have been); it simply wasn’t done, any more than it would have been in church. The ructions that sometimes disrupted – and, to be honest, sometimes enlivened – proceedings at the O.P., the ‘‘High Street” or on occasion the La Scala or the Salisbury, were axiomatically out of place at the Vic. 

David Atwell’s survey of the great super-cinemas, “Cathedrals of the Movies”, doesn’t include the Vic in its honours: list. South Siders of my youth knew, though. They had, if not on all of their doorsteps, at least no more than twa-three minutes walk from them, a cinema fit to rank with the best of the country’s super-palaces. To my mind anyway, the Vic was easily the best of all the six G.B. houses in Edinburgh and Leith, but then I might be just a wee thing biased. 

The doorman I remember from the thirties was, I’m sure, very conscious of the status of the house he served, and of his corresponding dignity as its custodian. His slow countermarch across, the foyer just inside the five pairs of glass doors (all open) was a one-man pageant, highlighted by the splendour of his uniform – silver-braided cap with spotless white cover in summer, buttons and epaulettes gleaming, immaculate gloves tucked in the left one, belt and shoes well polished, and the top three buttons of his royal-blue coat unfastened to fold back the rever and show the light-blue lining. 

I wonder how many folk now recall his recitative chant of prices and directions, which used to ring out over Clerk Street as the queues filed in and split up to the various paydesks: “O-o-one shilling to y’r ri-i-ight!” followed on the same note by “One-and-ni-i-ine upstairs!” If Adam along at the La Scala had the timbre of a fairground barker, the Vic’s man might have been compared to a cathedral precentor or the cantor in a synagogue. 

He seemed to fade from the scene as the war years stretched out. I don’t recall hearing him after I came home. Personalities, institutions, traditions all seemed to fade in this way – the good ones, at any rate; the bad ones, if remembered, aren’t missed. 

Some of the better features of the New Victoria as first built have survived the splitting into three which took place some years ago. The mighty Wurlitzer has, it seems, also survived several transplants and come to rest in a community centre. I’m glad it’s still singing – had twa-three shots on it (taking my life in my hands) on Sunday mornings before the run-through for the Sunday evening forces’ show – the “garrison theatre” – started. 

The Vic really wasn’t designed to house an organ; anybody passing the rear of the Odeon down Buccleuch Street can see, sticking out from the prompt-side by the proscenium wall, a huge brick box, obviously tacked on as an afterthought – the organ-chamber. Bless the Embassy for cancelling their order. 

Oddly enough, I was to hear the Wurlitzer some years ago on Radio Scotland from its abode in East Kilbride, and the organist was one weel-kent to a generation of Leithers at the Capitol – Lyndon Laird, ninety years old and still playing for church services and social events. Old soldiers never die – and it seems they don’t fade away all, that quickly, either. 

The New Victoria, later the Odeon, before its final splitting up. Certainly, to my mind at least, the finest of the Gaumont “big six” in Edinburgh and Leith. The photo taken from down front shows about two-thirds of the great sweep of the auditorium, with the private boxes at the roar of the stalls, the big projection room and one of the two open-balustraded platforms from which follow-spots were aimed at the organist and at the artistes in the Garrison Theatre Sunday-night shows which took place at the Vic during the war years . The others show a balcony view taken after the huge proscenium and its orders of columns were masked by drapes, and a closer view of the left-hand side wall with three of the niches with their statues representing the visual arts – the nearest one is carrying what might be a comedy mask. 

The shot taken from Buccleuch Street behind the house shows the brick box which housed the mighty Wurlitzer – the organ bought after the Embassy in Pilton cancelled their order. There obviously wasn’t room for an organ behind the columns of the proscenium on the prompt side, so this box was built behind them.

The front in Clerk Street looks pretty much as it looked in my schooldays, but the outer and inner foyers are much changed, as is the whole interior. It’s now, however, the only surviving cinema in the old South Side. 

* David Thom has commented "Anyhow, that "The Vic"  incidentally, was the only Edinburgh cinema to have a Wurlitzer" is, sadly, incorrect, as the The New picture House,  56/57 Princes Street, had a 2 manual 8 rank, model F. Wurlitzer ( Opus 1169) installed c.1927, which was opened by Reginald Foort - the first time he had encountered such an organ - and the details of which are given in his autobiography. That organ was later moved (c.1938) to the Granada, in Kingston on Thames."

** He also commented "I have checked through my old notes, and, at the risk of being boring, I refer again to the article on the New Victoria Cinema where it mentions that the organ came to Edinburgh from Baltimore. It did indeed - from the EMBASSY cinema, in Baltimore, where it was installed in 1925, on a part-payment and monthly instalment scheme agreed by the Wurlitzer company. However the theatre management got into financial difficulties and the organ was eventually re-possessed. It was a 2 manual 8 rank Model "F" (the same as at The New Picture House in Princes Street) and it came to Edinburgh with 2 extra rnanks of pipes, i.e. a (buzzy) Kinura, and an English Horn (a blaring sort of fanfare trumpet.) It was installed by Messrs. C P Scovell & Co. (organ builders) of Newington, (formerly of Causewayside, and later at Livingstone Hall, South Clerk Street.)"